The FORM Questionnaire: A Conversation with Vivian Kwok

Vivian Kwok’s work at MBH include a Neiman Marcus location in Walnut Creek, California. Image courtesy, MBH.

As part of our ongoing series of interviews with designers and architects, we speak to Vivian Kwok. She’s a senior designer at MBH in San Franscisco, where she’s worked on projects including a recent Neiman Marcus in Walnut Creek, California. An intensely private person, as you will see below, we’re delighted to have her share her thoughts on architecture—and music. 

What direction do you see the profession heading?  

Today, we are seeing more technological advances which directly impact our lifestyle. If it’s through carrying your life in your pocket with your iPhone, connecting with friends and clients on social media, or even tracking down your favorite food truck; it seems that everything is mobile and everything is shared. We see this innovation in architecture as well. The process itself is more collaborative, and clients want mobility and freedom in their architecture to suit the needs of their customers or staff. We are also seeing a wave of modular architecture, which capitalizes on the industry’s ability to design with flexibility in mind. These increasing pushes for mobility and connectivity are very exciting, as they demand innovation in architectural form from the designer.

What buildings inspire you? 

Growing up, one was the Sydney Opera House. As a visual person, I was drawn to the poetic, sculptural architecture of the building, and its incredible use of geometry to create a beautiful performance space. I was inspired by the fact that it was immediately recognizable, an icon known around the world, based not only on its location and importance to the people, but also on its architecture.  

Another place is Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute in San Diego. My appreciation of this building is not only the clean lines and the simple materials that stand the test of time, but also the experience of being in the space. Kahn created an incredible experiential environment, where one walks through the built space into a breathtaking plaza that opens onto the water. This is a structure that uses the surroundings and the coastline in a way that complements and enhances its natural beauty, rather than imposing architecture over the environment.

Recently, I have been fascinated by Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral. I am so struck by the fact that it is still under construction today, and that Gaudi had the faith to start a building that would need to be finished by technologies not yet invented. It is an incredible monument to the continuing evolution of architecture, and a beautiful example of architecture as an evolving and living structure.

Where else do you find inspiration?

I grew up playing classical music, so I often find inspiration and reflection in music. Listening to the rhythmic, melodic patterns in the composition of classical music is beautiful and calming to me . . . a great emotional outlet. Additionally, I love nature; forests and ocean beaches are incredible spaces that allow me to relax and think.

Courtesy MBHWhat are your three favorite objects? 

My violin: Through all the years having played the violin, a hobby passed down from my dad, it has become almost like a companion in life, your trusted instrument or voice to channel your emotions. Unfortunately, it has been several years now since I’ve last touched my violin, but I do wish one day soon to be able to pick it back up, to share this passion with the next generation of my family.

My camera: I love taking photos, although these days I take a lot of iPhone photos, because it’s so convenient to use.

My triple insulated stainless steel EcoVessel water bottle! I know it’s strange, but this thing is amazing. I carry it everywhere with me. I love coming back to the car after a long hike baking in the heat and having water that’s still ice cold! 

Who are some of your favorite young architects?

Not necessarily “young,” but I really admire the work of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien; the thoughtfulness behind the materials they use and forms they construct are inspiring. I love the American Folk Museum and was so sad to hear that it may be demolished. As a Cal alum, I enjoy experiencing the majestic UC Berkeley East Asian Library, where their design not only elegantly balanced a mix of materials (stone, concrete, wood, bronze and other metals), but also integrated the use of natural light throughout.

Another favorite is Maya Lin. Although she’s in her 50s now, I think that in my mind she will forever be preserved at the age when she designed the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. She was such an important role model to me growing up, as a young Asian woman who challenged everyone’s assumption of who could create a timeless war memorial during a very heated period in history.

Another is Thomas Heatherwick. He came to my attention when he designed the UK Pavillion for the expo in China. His whimsical “Seed Pavilion” had such incredible artistry and naturally inspired design. I recently looked him up and saw that he also designed the flower petal Cauldron for the London Summer Olympic Games! I remember watching in awe during the opening ceremony, the convergence of the separate flames representing each nation into one unified flame, symbolizing the Olympic spirit of peace and togetherness.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be (a location or specific structure)?

I love living close to the ocean, so I’m happy that the Bay Area is my home. Although it’s a little bit cliché, I would love to live in the paradise of Kaua’i. The natural beauty and the ocean are incredible there, and I find it very peaceful.

A decade from now, what trends will be cringeworthy?

There’s no specific designing trend that jumps to mind. I suppose that I dislike faux-material like the decorative exterior foam insulation that is on some buildings now. I like it when designs stay true to the material, rather than finding synthetic substitutes. 

What currents trends will stand the test of time?

The movement towards sustainable green design is gaining more and more momentum. I think that in the future it will become normalized and standard in our industry to build sustainably. As peoples’ impact on the earth becomes increasingly severe, we are going to have to develop more innovative ways of creating green and sustainable buildings.

Color—yes or no?

Yes! There is so much personality in color; it makes people happy.

What are you reading?

I just started Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In. She’s a very inspiring figure for women, and I’m excited to read it.

What are you wearing? 

Blue jeans, a persimmon colored shirt, a flyaway grey sweater, and a floral scarf that my sister gave me.

What are you eating? 

I’m really bad at eating breakfast, but this morning I had some of those Trader Joe’s coconut chips.

Do you listen to music while you’re working?

Yes, when I can, but as I manage more projects, I have to be aware of what is going on around me. If I need to focus in, I like to listen to soundtracks. Joe Hisaishi is one of my favorite classical soundtrack composers—he’s done Nausicaa and Spirited Away among many.

Are you a sketcher or a computer person? 

A mix of them both. If I’m generating ideas, I begin by sketching to draw from any inspiration and to look at the big picture. However, a computer allows you to get into the details, and so much of our work is technologically focused these days.

Social media—yes or no? 

Yes, I use social media to keep in touch with friends and to keep up on the news. However, I am a very private person, and try to minimize what I publish about myself on the internet.



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